Here’s something different: At the start of the summer movie season, amid so many CGI spectacles and unwanted sequels, here we have a Jane Austen adaptation! One with virtually unanimous critical praise, no less.
Funnily enough, Love and Friendship is not adapted from Austen’s early work of a similar name. The film is instead based on Austen’s novella, “Lady Susan”, which chronicled the devious social machinations of the eponymous Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale). The Lady Susan is recently widowed and her teenage daughter (Frederica, played by Morfydd Clark) keeps running away from school, so the both of them are unable to make a living for themselves. Which means that Susan has to find husbands for both of them. By lying, cheating, and backstabbing whatever friends and relatives are within reach.
Beckinsale is a joy to watch in the central role, dominating the screen as a conniving two-faced bitch with a withering sense of humor and a wickedly clever wit as only Austen could write. Really, everyone in the cast is excellent. Chloe Sevigny and Stephen Fry are the only two other recognizable names in the cast and of course they’re great, but every last actor in this piece was perfectly chosen and they all make a meal out of Jane Austen’s dialogue.
The visuals are none too shabby, either. The sets look nice, the costumes are good, everything’s well lit, and the camera barely moves at all. This looks exactly like you’d expect a period costume drama to look like. Hell, the movie looks and sounds practically identical to the 1995 BBC adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice”, debatably the all-time most definitive Jane Austen adaptation yet. Therein lies the appeal… and also the problem. Let me see if I can put this another way.
Shakespeare had his own unique style of writing. Though he wrote in English, nobody can simply pick up and read his works like we might pick up and read anything else in the English language. To fully understand and appreciate his work would mean understanding the obsolete social protocols of the time and place in which he wrote. To say nothing of Shakespeare’s prodigious vocabulary and the unique way in which he used his words.
If you’ll pardon the comparison, Jane Austen is a similar kind of case. She had a very particular way of writing, with whip-smart lines of dialogue that fly right past any readers who wouldn’t know enough to listen for them. Additionally, Austen dealt with social configurations and romantic entanglements that would be vastly complicated even for those familiar with the outdated social protocols of the time.
That said, at least Shakespeare wrote for the stage, so theatrical adaptations are relatively easy to follow by design. Compare that to Austen, who wrote her stories in prose. Reading her novels, we have the luxury of re-reading certain passages and drawing flow charts to clarify the action as needed. In film, however, that’s not much of an option.
In an apparent effort to correct this, the film takes the highly unusual step of introducing its characters in text. Seriously, the film comes to a dead stop so we can see a portrait of each character in turn, over a caption of each character’s name and a brief nutshell description of who the character is. While this is amusing and I appreciate the effort at clarifying things, it actually has the opposite effect. It does me no good to explain the connections between characters before I know who the characters are and who’s really important in moving the plot forward. Furthermore, it’s emotionally distancing and it’s just plain sloppy storytelling, and I’m not sure the filmmakers were going for either.
That aside, getting back to the (admittedly blasphemous) Shakespeare comparisons, this isn’t like one of those Shakespeare adaptations that tries to make the text more accessible by utilising modern imagery and settings (Ralph Fiennes’ film adaptation of Coriolanus, for example). No, everything about this film is kept within period as much as possible. Aside from the odd use of subtitles, the movie rigidly keeps to the language and imagery of Jane Austen’s text. Complete with the convoluted social/romantic/familial interactions that may take multiple viewings and a Cliff’s Notes guide for the uninitiated to completely understand.
Basically put, if you’re at all familiar with Jane Austen and her “comedy of manners” style, you already know what to expect from Love and Friendship. And I’m sure you will absolutely love the film, as everyone on both sides of the camera revels in Austen’s trademark banter, dry wit, and labyrinthine plotting. This is absolutely a love letter to Austen and those who love her work will have an amazing time.
That said, there are those who don’t care for stuffy costume dramas, without the patience for Jane Austen and the archaic gender politics of her time. This will not be the film to convert them, I’m sorry to say. Any such filmgoers will have absolutely no use for this movie and may safely pass it by.